Weight Lifting Experiment #1
Here is the story about how I have spend 6 months testing and optimizing a training program helping athletes to become stronger without adding muscle mass. So far, it has been a success, but it is clear to me that I’m a much better coach than athlete…
Why is this weight lifting experiment important?
Many road cyclists enter the local gym to use weight lifting as a compensation for less training time on the road. Weight lifting is a great way to keep you fit during the winter and that is also why I have used weight lifting in the majority of winter training programs I have made.
Though, it is important to emphasize that there is no scientific proof that weight lifting during the off-season is better than cycling training only.
No matter if you decide to ride 2 hours more per week or choose to add two weekly sessions at the local gym, you’ll probably end up with better performance in both situations.
Confused? Well, ask anyone else and you’ll get a much clearer answer…
Nevertheless, there are some trends that I would like to share with you. I believe weight lifting may play a bigger role in the future for some of the best performing road cyclists.
First of all, it’s important to understand that the training techniques mentioned here might work for professional or semi-professional cyclists. If you ride at a lower level, and I guess that is what most readers do, you would probably benefit more from increased training amount on your bike (in a strict time effective point of view). Yes, you’ll get more value for additional time on your bike than spending one hour lifting weights.
Larger muscle cells (that will say larger square diameter) can generate more power.
That is the most commonly known way to increase power.
Though it is not desirable for most road cyclists.
The problem is that a large muscle mass is heavy to carry and there is a dilution of mitochondrias. Thus, an increment of maximal strength made through hypertrophy will probably not result in a better overall cycling performance.
Instead, cyclists should mainly be concerned about increasing their neural strength. I know that many training programs take a different approach, but I disagree in most situations.
It is very unlikely that hypertrophy in itself will help normal riders. Yes, there are a few selective riders where extra muscle mass will give them extra punch in mass sprints etc., but for the majority of riders hypertrophy should be avoided.
Nervous regulation of force
Basically there are two ways to control a muscle’s force.
One way is to recruit more motor unit, which will activate more motor units. You can think of this as your brain tells your muscle to use a larger percentile of your muscle’s fibres to generate power. Motor units are recruited to in order of size. Small motor units are recruited before large motor units. This is called the size principle of recruitment.
The second way to regulate force production is through rate coding. It is an increment of the frequency of impulse signals to the motor unit. When a motor unit is stimulated more frequently, the twitches begin to overlap each other, which will generate a larger force.
This is the basic physiology behind the mechanisms used to increase the force.
So if you want to generate more power, you have three options:
1) It is either to build larger muscle mass, 2) make a better recruitment of motor units or 3) fire a higher frequency of stimuli to the motor neurons.
Because you have to carry your own body weight on your bike, I believe, it is much more interesting to train your neural system. If you’re be able to activate your muscles in a smarter and more efficient way, you can develop a more powerful stroke and increase your endurance.
So there is – at least theoretically – a potential to increase performance.
Even professionals might benefit from this.
In fact, if it is possible to increase strength (without getting injured or decreasing performance in other training sessions), why shouldn’t a professional cyclist take advantage of it?
Weight lifting experiment – #1 (home experiment)
Since the beginning of May 2013, I have practiced weight lifting with the aim to increase strength without adding muscle mass. I wanted to test specific training sessions that were time effective and did not affect performance the following day.
These training sessions should be difficult enough to increase my strength, but so demanding that they stimulate my muscles to grow. Also, it should be possible to recover without suffering from delayed onset muscle soreness the following day.
Normally, I use test pilots for new training ideas (it’s much, much easier for me…), but this time I wanted to get some hands-on experience to get a better feeling of the training philosophy.
To be honest, I find it very difficult to follow a strict training without a specific goal. It’s no problem to get your training done when you feel good and everything is going your way, but it is much more difficult to get through a difficult training session when you’re tired, stressed up or time crunched.
Fact is, I the same challenges like readers here on training4cyclists.com do: I have a full time job as medical doctor, I have a wife and three small kids (age 1, 4 and 6), an old house to repair and a growing website that has the potential to become a full-time job.
So during the first four months my training sessions were very infrequent (weight lifting 0 to 3 times per week, avg. 1.5 training session per week) and very time effective. Most sessions were shorter than 30 minutes.
Following two performance tests in July and September, I realized, I needed a short term goal to be more committed for my training. To put a little pressure on myself, I submitted for a power lifting competition and, suddenly, began to train a harder and more frequent as I got closer to ‘race day’.
This reminds me what I always teach riders: You MUST have a goal with your training. I’ve seen so many riders perform much better when there is a specific goal with their training.
Since my training volume has been very low it has actually been possible to reduce body weight a bit. In november 2013, I entered my first power lifting competition ever (RAW power lifting: no bench press shirts, wraps or lifting suits of any kind). I took a 13th place: Squat 150kg, bench press 102,5kg and dead lift 200kg. I was far behind the best athletes, but I was very happy with my results.
So far this little experiment with very little amount of training has taken me to ‘above average’ performance 1RM lifts in squat, bench press and deadlift. And my body weight hasn’t increase at all. Actually I’ve lost a few pounds.
I know there is room for improvements (technique), but there is not much left for hypertrophy (weighed in on 82,7kg in the 83Kg class…) My fat percentage is low – probably around 9 – so my main focus towards next competition in April 2014, is to become stronger without adding muscle mass.
I plan to continue this experiment a couple of months to see what’s possible with this training method. I think it is very interesting, because if this concept works just as well as I hope, this training method can be applied to many different sports.
So what is the secret?
I’ll go closer into detail in a later post, but here are some of the cornerstones in this training program:
Limit total number of repetitions in working sets
– 10 to 15 lifts per exercise (e.g. squats)
Limit repetitions per set
– Five reps or less. Three reps are fine for bench press and squats. Single lifts are great for dead lifts.
No failure training or forced reps
– Forget about ‘No pain, no gain’ attitude.
Long recovery between sets
– at least 3min, 5+ min if possible.
Set a goal
– always have a goal with your training (both short and long term goals).
As mentioned before, this is not a scientific study, but a home experiment. I apply the best advice from books and articles I have read, personal experience from previous training programs and athletes I have coached, and most importantly listen to feedback from many of my readers that have tested training ideas presented here on the website.
I look forward to keep you posted about my training. If you want to keep me motivated, please leave a comment and/or share this post on Facebook, Twitter etc.
UPDATE 6th of April 2015 – Won a bronze medal at National Championships with a 180kg Squat (body weight 82,5kg) (Watch video below)